US-backed Syrian rebels are advancing on the ISIS capital
The Syrian Democratic Forces coalition (SDF) launched a new campaign to advance toward the ISIS capital at Raqqa, the SDF commander announced on Twitter today:
— QSD Press Office (@QsdPress) May 24, 2016
The SDF is comprised of mostly Kurdish fighters and Syrian militia groups and is the primary partner for the U.S. effort against ISIS. This new offensive has taken them within 40 miles of the ISIS stronghold. U.S. and coalition aircraft are supporting the effort with airstrikes in and around Raqqa.
SDF's strongest component, the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), will not advance on the capital city itself. The Kurdish leadership believes Raqqa should be captured by Arab militias. Thirty thousand SDF troops moved to retake vast areas northwest of the city, but the assault on Raqqa will have to wait until the Arab militias have the strength.
BBC Middle East Correspondent Quentin Sommerville reports ISIS fighters are literally digging in for Raqqa's defense. Earthworks and defensive structures are going up around the area. There are even rumors of an extensive network of tunnels.
Fox News reported a state of emergency was declared by ISIS in Raqqa. The city's defenders number anywhere from three to five thousand fighters. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russian forces are ready to coordinate with the SDF and the U.S. coalition to provide any support necessary to capture the ISIS capital.
SDF forces celebrated a string of victories against ISIS in recent months, including liberating a number of villages and 4,000 square miles of territory under ISIS control, capturing militants, and cutting off ISIS supply lines into neighboring Iraq. Raqqa fell to ISIS in 2013, the first Syrian provincial capital to fall to forces in open rebellion against the Asad regime in Damascus.